Before we left for Brussels, a couple of our friends in London warned us that the city would be boring “because of all the EU bureaucrats.” But speaking as someone who spent a lot of time in Washington, DC and loved parts of it, I’m always glad to stick up for seat-of-government cities that are overshadowed by more glamorous neighbors.
Brussels lived up to its positive stereotype as the home of chocolates and frites. I loved the melt-in-your-mouth goodies at Pierre Marcolini. We went to the flagship on the Place du Grand Sablon, and although the shop was mobbed, it meant high inventory turnover, which meant fresh chocolates. I have a weakness for chocolate-covered almonds (dragees), and the almonds here are honey-roasted first, I think, so that after biting through the luscious bittersweet chocolate ganache and cocoa powder, you hit the supremely-crunchy-and-sweet roasted almond. Brilliance in a Box for 9.50 euros.
And in addition to having great frites at restaurants like Les Brassins, I also enjoyed many a snack from simple frites stands like Fritland, across from the Bourse. You step up to the window, order your frites, and then wonder in amazement at the dozens of “sauces” available, all mayonnaise-based. (I guess this is in case your crispy, double-fried potato sticks of goodness aren’t fatty enough). Perfection in a Paper Cone. I’m getting out of control with these alliterations, I know.
The chocolates, beer and frites would have been enough, but the city went beyond those classics of the food front — home to a vibrant cafe culture. Actually, more accurately, home to a vibrant Tea Scene. There were so many pretty shops and cafes taking tea very seriously that it was easy to take refuge from the wintry cold with a cuppa’.
There was Tea & Eat (a short walk from the luxury shops of Avenue Louise), La Tarterie de Pierre, on the Grand Sablon, Frederic Blondeel in the St. Catherine neighborhood, and even the “original” Le Pain Quotidien, close to the Place de Petit Sablon.
Tea & Eat (yay anagram coolness!) came highly recommended by our friend Jane, and the Avenue Louise location we visited is in a charming former townhouse. The front sitting room still has a cozy fireplace, and the bright, airy dining room is all tall-ceilinged, crown-molded glory. The servers were helpful and attentive, though they pushed drinks pretty aggressively. Jon and I got sucked in by the sales pressure and each ordered a small pot of lapson souchong, which was incredibly rich and smoky – perfect with food.
Our lunch at Tea & Eat had touches of greatness beyonds its cafe style: fresh, nutty brown bread and shot glasses of olive-and-tomato soup arrived at our table while we scanned the menu (comprised of salads, pastas and assorted scrambled eggs dishes). Jon and my scrambled eggs dishes were unbelievably runny, which was too bad considering how easy to make scrambled eggs are, but I figured it was better to eat them runny than dried out/molded in the shape of a pan. At least my portion of smoked salmon was generous, topped with fresh chives, and I liked how it was served with hot toasted bread with the edges cut off. I’m easily sucked in by the small things.
La Tarterie de Pierre deserves mention because (1) its window displays of tarts are so beautiful (tart as art?); (2) it’s conveniently located for shopping on the Grand Sablon; and (3) our lunch there was efficient and tasty enough.
We tried three different tarts: asparagus-and-crab, courgette-and-chevre, and salmon-and-spinach. 10-11 euros buys you two slices of tart and a side salad, and you sit at sleek, blond-wood counters watching all the pedestrians who gaze longingly at the tart displays.
I liked that the pastry crust was a little sweet, which complemented the savory fillings, and although all the tarts were good, the courgette tart was by far the best of the bunch. (You could barely taste the salmon in the salmon-and-spinach, and the asparagus, while delicious, overpowered whatever crab might have been in the asparagus-and-crab). They’re not the best tarts you’ll ever have, but they’re good and handy when you’re browsing the weekend antiques market in the Grand Sablon square.
Last, but not least, while exploring the neighborhood around the St. Catherine metro just behind the Bourse, Jon and I were caught in a nasty downpour, so we took cover in a pretty shop called Frederic Blondeel.
I felt lucky to snag the last of the free tables. My pot of mint tea (made with fresh mint leaves) came served with a free, deliciously-decadent crème brulee, rich with vanilla bean, so Frederic Blondeel gets the photo at the top of this post (such an honor, I know) even though their coffee macaroon for 2 euros was kind of stale and bitter. The shop is a chocolaterie, so you can watch staff making chocolates at the back, and the sweet smell of chocolate makes leaving the comfy confines of the shop impossible.
When Frederic Blondeel closed at 6:30 (it was Sunday), we returned around the corner to the trendy shops on Rue Antoine Dansaert and ate our last meal in Brussels at Pataya, a casual Thai place serving a mean green curry. I guess we were chocolate-and-frite’d out by then. A starter, mains and beers at Pataya brought the tab to 40 euros.